Prov 17:22

A merry heart doeth good like a medicine... - Proverbs 17:22

Friday, April 28, 2023

The Teacher Learns Her Lessons

Last fall, I wrote about being invited to teach a creative writing course at our local Red River College campus. On March 30, we began Level 2 and will finish before the May long weekend. One day during her daily check-in call, my mother asked me an interesting question, especially intriguing coming from someone who taught school for at least two decades. “How do you teach writing?”

Darned if I know.

My students are all adults who learned to read and write as children, from trained teachers who actually understood how to teach. They’re avid readers. They generally remember basic grammar, spelling, punctuation, and sentence structure from high school. So what could I bring to the table, really?

Well, it turns out that writing, like many things, is as much about motivation, inspiration, determination, and dedication as about writing. Bringing all those “nations” together has been my goal. In a last-class letter to my Level 1 students, I wrote, “I can’t make you a writer. Your Creator already did that.”

My task involves challenging them to turn on the tap to start and to keep words flowing. Providing creative exercises that push them to new ideas. Assigning an increasing number of words to write every day so they can discern their personal limits and then set their own goals in Level 2. Offering constructive feedback to help them edit their work as well as the work of their classmates. Showing how to carve out time and space, set goals, and plan a project. I’ve caught myself giggling with gleeful anticipation when I dream up a fun writing exercise. I’ve seen that same exercise go swimmingly, only to see it quickly flush itself down the drain with my next group, taking my confidence with it.

You’ve heard about teaching a man to fish and feeding him for a lifetime? In our class, the joke is, “Give someone a book and they’ll read for a day. Teach someone to write a book and they’ll spend a lifetime mired in paralyzing self-doubt.”

There’s truth in that. I’ve shared with my students the ups and downs of the writing world, the process of getting published, living with the agony of rejection, and overcoming writer’s block. We’ve discussed genre, memoir-writing, novel-plotting, character development, and more. Each lesson is truly the tip of the proverbial iceberg as there’s always more to learn.

I know this because I’m learning along with them. I sure can’t provide all the answers. But we’ve laughed a lot, cried a little, and thought some new thoughts—all elements of a good day. I’m learning that I gain more through a humble “Great question, I don’t know,” than by faking my way through a half-baked answer. Disclosing my failures goes as far as sharing my successes. Providing others a chance to share their work, to take that risk and bare their souls even a little can prove incredibly rewarding.

In his 1902 play, Man and Superman, George Bernard Shaw wrote, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” This becomes the fear of every artist, that their work won’t be good enough to stand on its own merit. Teaching their craft to others is often seen as a last resort. A consolation prize. I hope to prove Shaw wrong. Maybe, by God’s grace, I can have my writing and my students, too.


Friday, April 21, 2023

Extra, Extra! Read All About It! Part 2

Along with my friends Nettie and Sara, I’m seated in a Winnipeg church sanctuary as an extra in the new TV sitcom, “Maria and the Mennos.” Lucy, the Artistic Director, rearranges us numerous times before she’s satisfied. The Director, Paul, instructs us to mouth conversations but not release so much as a whisper. Every sound will be picked up by the boom mic and only the main actors’ voices should be recorded. We repeat the same short scene about four times and are sent downstairs again.

Over the next four hours, we wait—going dead silent whenever we hear the command, “Rolling!”

Once the scene is captured, they holler down the stairs again. “Cut!” and we are free to speak. The longest of these silences lasts perhaps three minutes, but by the sighs of relief around the room, you’d think we’d been asked to hold our breath the entire time.

The craft services crew feeds us a fantastic Mennonite lunch of borscht, perogies, farmer sausage, coleslaw, and pie. The cast and crew join us, and we get to chat with Erna, who plays Sarah, Maria’s mother-in-law. Erna fills us in on some of the joys and challenges of making a TV show. After only nine weeks of shooting, they’re already starting their final week of filming 13 episodes. I guess that’s how it works on a shoestring budget. Director Paul is a lovely man who repeatedly expresses his appreciation to us.

We wait some more. I finish reading my book. Someone finds a Crokinole board. Other extras get their chance to go upstairs. Finally, around 3:30, they call us all up. This time, we will stay for a full singing session. We’re rearranged based on the colors we wear and our height while seated (I assume. No reasons are offered). In some cases, extras need to straddle two chairs to get the shot just right. I’m impressed by how tightly all the people and equipment are squished together. How do they shoot the scene without capturing any of the other cameras, light stands, or mics? It’s an art, for sure.

After being moved four times, I end up in the front row of the congregation. I’m not privy to the camera’s view, so who knows whether I’m in the shot? One crew member reads out the scene and “take” numbers. Another responds in what sounds like their own filmmaker’s language. I hear words called out like “Set” and “Rolling.” The slate claps. And finally, “Action!”

I’m relieved when the first hymn we’re asked to sing is familiar but surprised when they provide no opportunity to rehearse or even warm up our voices. They simply roll the camera and the piano player starts in.

I needn’t worry. The crowd of Mennonites surrounding me can pull off four-part harmony at the drop of a bonnet, apparently. Clearly, I’m in the midst of experienced choir members. The second song is new to me, and I’m more grateful than ever for the ability to sight-read, weak though it is. I mostly lip-sync my way through the first take. 

On the set of Maria and the Mennos

Because they might splice together clips from different takes, it’s imperative that the tempo of the songs be exactly the same on every take. To accomplish this, a real-life music director stands slightly to the side, off-camera. Using a metronome app, she holds her phone to her ear with one hand while directing us with the other. She wraps that hand in fluorescent tape to make it easier for us to see in our peripheral vision. We pretend to focus on the actor who fake-leads us. We sing both songs four times each, interspersed with the actors’ bits.

Our day ends around five o’clock. Nettie’s excited to be in one additional scene on the sidewalk before we pack up and head home. How cool will it be if Nettie appears in the show’s opening title sequence?

I’m glad I said “yo” to this opportunity, but I’m not eager to be an extra again. That much waiting around felt too unproductive—even if I did get two columns out of it! However, if you ever have the opportunity (and you’re confident the show won’t compromise your morals) I say go for it! At the very least, you’ll eat some great food, maybe learn a new song, and finish whatever book you’re reading.

That’s a wrap!

Friday, April 14, 2023

Extra, extra! Read all about it!

What happens when a Filipino-Canadian woman marries into a Mennonite family and moves in with her new in-laws? You’ll find out when you watch the new TV sitcom series being filmed in Manitoba called Maria and the Mennos, coming to Yes TV in the fall.

I first heard about this show from my friend Nettie Neudorf, whose sister-in-law, Erna, portrays Sarah, the Mennonite mom in the series. When a call went out for “extras” to appear in an episode, Nettie approached me.

“Hey! Want to do this with me?”

I can’t truthfully say I have a bucket list. But if I did, being an extra in a movie or TV show would be on it. I’ve often thought playing the same character for years might be the best job in the world, especially if the character was much-loved by a loyal audience. But since that’s not going to happen, I saw this as an opportunity to taste what happens on set. Naturally, I said, “Sure.”

I clicked on the link Nettie sent me, filled out the form, and waited.

When a positive reply came, I learned we’d need to commit to the entire day of filming and that we’d be part of a church congregation. I may not be a Mennonite, but I have decades of experience sitting in church and singing hymns, so how big a stretch could this be? We were told to bring three or four changes of outfits, arrive with our hair and makeup done, bring along our makeup bag labeled with our name and hand it off to the makeup person, and come prepared for a lot of waiting around. From others’ experiences, I knew that any clips in which I might appear could easily land on the virtual cutting room floor, but at least I could cross something off my invisible bucket list. The night before, I packed my outfits and makeup bag. I also took a rapid Covid test and emailed a photo of the negative result, as requested.

Following are the details of our day, in two parts.

Nettie picks me up at 7:00 a.m. and then her friend, Sara. The three of us enjoy a great visit on the ride to Winnipeg and easily make it to the church on time. Inside, we’re directed downstairs. Our “green room” is the church fellowship hall, where several chairs surrounding round tables will soon fill with around 40 people waiting for their chance in the spotlight. Soon all the things we weren’t told become evident. We’ll be required to wear masks all day except when eating, drinking, or being filmed. Some confusion about Covid testing occurs when one person insists we must take tests on the spot. Some do, some don’t. The makeup person goes around and merely looks at our faces, declaring us good to go. As for alternate outfits, they want only what we can change on set, such as adding or removing a sweater. No one makes it clear whether or not this entire day of filming represents a single day in the show.

Coffee, tea, juice, and plenty of snacks await our enjoyment. The room quickly buzzes with lively conversation. Finally, after half an hour or more, the director and others come down to introduce themselves and share a bit of info before leaving us to wait again. 

Me, Sara, Erna, and Nettie

Around 11:00, the Artistic Director, Lucy, comes downstairs. “This table, this table, and that table,” she announces. We are in! We file upstairs to the sanctuary where we each grab a blue hymnbook from the pile.

“You two, over here,” Lucy directs us where to sit. “You two… you two…”

“U2 is here?” the man beside me quips.

“You can’t always get what you want,” I quip back.

“That’s the Rolling Stones,” the man beside me corrects.

Oh yeah. Wrong band. Embarrassed and with my confidence deflated, I sit quietly and do as I’m told.

Watch for Part 2 next week.